Sometimes you travel halfway around the world only to find yourself right in your own back yard. So it was that, after the better part of a day spent flying to Argentina, where I had been invited to join a jury at the Sixth Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (April 14–25), I settled into a theater to watch Heinz Emigholz’s superb documentary Goff in the Desert, which showcases 62 of the 80 works created by architect Bruce Goff. Emigholz is German, but Goff is American, and while the film focuses on Goff’s extraordinary residential spaces — rustic, sylvan dwellings that look like houses trees might build for themselves to live in — it also pays a visit to the Japanese Pavilion he designed for LACMA, located a stone’s throw from my own Los Angeles apartment.
Great film festivals are about great film discoveries, and Goff in the Desert is one such find. It also seems strangely at home in Argentina’s capital, where the sweaty cobblestone streets snake through an architecture that runs the gamut from German neogothic to French neoclassical — largely untouched by time, save for the odd Burger King and kosher McDonald’s squished in between. Spending a few days here, a colleague notes, is akin to time-traveling from the present to the early part of the 20th century and back again — not a bad premise for a Borges story. But the same can be said of the festival itself, and not just because its headquarters are located in an enormous modern shopping mall that retains the façade of the produce market it was once upon a time. Here, in the course of a single day’s viewing, one could journey from John Ford’s Monument Valley to James Benning’s California, with a pit stop to soak up the New York of film diarist–in–exile Jonas Mekas. And in doing so, one would have but scratched the surface of a program that featured miniretrospectives of 10 other filmmakers (including late U.S. documentarian Emile De Antonio, the only filmmaker to have once occupied a spot on Nixon’s enemies list), a treasure-trove of rarities from the Cinémathèque Française and a strong selection of recent world cinema. From Argentina itself came one genuine revelation: La Libertad director Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos, a Bressonian study of a paroled convict’s journey back to his adult daughter that will receive its international premiere later this month in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.
Like most festivals, Buenos Aires is the product of a group of programmers and other staffers whose work for the following year’s gathering begins as soon as the present year’s closes. But it is also the particular vision of its director, Eduardo Antin (affectionately known by his pen name, Quintìn), and his wife, Flavia de la Fuente, who in their spare time publish and write criticism for the Argentinean film magazine El Amante. Of course, the title says it all: Quintìn and Flavia are among the grandest lovers of cinema I have had the pleasure of meeting, deeply committed to a tradition of cinephile society that seems endangered in so many parts of the world. Put simply, they’re not merely giving audiences a chance to view the works of Ford and Benning, but encouraging them to ponder the ways in which the two are interrelated. And their efforts are largely in sync with a city that teems as much with culture as it does with people. (There are roughly as many bookstores in Buenos Aires as there are Starbucks in a comparably sized American metropolis.) No wonder, despite its close timing to Cannes, dozens of the world’s leading critics and festival programmers make the journey to the Buenos Aires festival and wouldn’t dream of missing it. No wonder, this year, a few of them were even doing a little apartment hunting while in town.